The pastry department at Blackbird, with all it’s nuances and challenges is structurally straightforward. Our menu invites guests to dine with an appetizer, entree, and dessert, and our pastry kitchen is staffed with a traditional chef, sous chef, and line cooks who both create and plate our desserts, controlling the experience from start to finish. It’s challenging in and of itself but the structure of the department is ordinary, and with it we can accomplish most that we set out to do.
Avec, on the other hand, has proven to be a fickle beast, and creating desserts to fit the structure of Avec’s kitchen and dining experience has never stopped being a challenge. Creating the appropriate culmination for the dining experience has at times proved elusive. The menu is Mediterranean, but authentic Mediterranean and Italian desserts have rarely sold well. Save a tirimisu, desserts from warmer regions like those inspiring the cuisine at Avec are often fruit, or a little granita and some cream. We have offered these, but inevitably, it’s the cobblers, bread puddings, and cheesecakes that people order instead. So we have come to adopt american desserts and twist them with Mediteranean flavor. We always make sure to call our pudding “budino”. After all, while Avec takes it’s cues from another culture, the restaurant exists in the midwest and serves people with midwestern desires and appetites.
Pinning down the creative framework we would work within is not the biggest challenge.. Instead, the kitchen itself is our most limiting factor. If you’ve ever dined at Avec, andlaid eyes on the glowing embers in our woodfire oven, or the 6 overworked gas burners next to it, you’ve seen the entirety of the kitchen. While we slice, dice, chop, and mix on counters in the basement prep kitchen, nothing can be cooked outside the 6 square feet surrounding the stone oven. Desserts themselves are stored in a small refrigerator under the espresso machine and plated on any scrap of the 2 foot counter left available after coffee is made. This is done not by cooks, but by the people who bus tables and run food. The desserts require absolute simplicity to achieve a high quality result in such cramped quarters. And that woodfire oven? Well it just loves to burn things.
We have held on to desserts that work well within these limits, bread puddings baked and reassembled in oven proof terracotta casuelas, needing nothing more than a little heat from the wood fire oven to be prepared; budinos and pannacottas, preset in little cups ready to grab and serve aside simple cookies; and cakes, slices of cakes of all sorts that can be plated with a little sauce or whipped cream.
While we know what works, occasionally we still try to put something new on the menu, push our boundaries and see what we can achieve. Most recently, we attempted to wrap a molten chocolate batter in brick pastry before being baked, a crispy pouch of a shell with a frilly top. This chocolate purse was on the menu at Spago frequently, and something I’d wanted to adapt for Avec for some time. We plated our warm chocolate covered with puffed rice tossed with sesame and urfa pepper, a scoop of spiced date ice cream nestled into the frilly crown. It was perfect.
Perfect when baked in the controlled convection ovens at Blackbird.
Not so perfect when transferred to the 900 degrees of the wood fire oven at avec. Before the batter had a chance to souffle and warm inside the pastry, the frill was a charred mess.
We began tinkering with the way we wrapped the chocolate, trying different shapes that would decrease the char of the brick pastry by manipulating surface area. Each shape we tried decreased the frill, finally eliminating it, increasing the crispy shell around the chocolate in an unfortunate manner. In the end we simply piped the batter into a casuela, and baked it to order in the wood fire oven, no pastry to risk burning at all. It’s delicious, no doubt. But it’s no different than the variation we served last year other than the spiced date ice cream scooped over the top and the puffed rice.
If you have a kitchen in which you can bake things to order, then by all means, try this dessert. The presentation is striking, and the contrast between the crispy pastry and the warm gooey chocolate cake inside is unparalleled. Add a scoop of ice cream and this dessert won’t fail to impress. I’m glad we tried to expand ourselves, even if the end result was the same dessert we served last year. We can continue to ask the question of Avec, “how far can we go” and we might continue to get the same answer year after year. But complacency is a risk when the limitations are so binding, and I’d rather try and fail than never ask Avec how much more we can do.